Trusted medical advice from the
American Academy of Family Physicians.

Lumbar Spinal Canal Stenosis

What is lumbar spinal canal stenosis?

The lumbar spinal canal is the space inside the lower spine that carries nerves to your legs. It is very narrow. Over the course of many years, the bone and tissue around the canal grow, causing the canal to become even more narrow. This narrowing is called stenosis. As this happens, the nerves that go through it are squeezed. This squeezing may cause back pain, leg pain, weakness, and numbness.

Is lumbar spinal canal stenosis the same as a ruptured disk?

Lumbar spinal canal stenosis is not the same as a ruptured disk. A ruptured or herniated disk usually pinches 1 or 2 nerves at a time. The pain caused by a ruptured disk in the lumbar spine is easy to diagnose and is known as sciatica. Sciatica causes back pain that shoots down one leg along the path of the sciatic nerve. It can happen any time, not just when you stand up or start walking like it does with stenosis.

Symptoms of lumbar spinal canal stenosis

People who have lumbar spinal canal stenosis may have back or leg pain or numbness. Your legs might also feel cramped, tired, or weak. These symptoms usually start when you are standing or walking.

Many people notice the pain is better climbing stairs or leaning over a shopping cart and worse walking down stairs. Often, the symptoms get better if you sit, crouch, or lie in the fetal position (with your knees tucked up to your chest). It’s thought that these positions open the lumbar canal and take the pressure off the nerves that go to the legs. In severe cases, stenosis can cause partial or complete bowel or bladder incontinence.

What causes lumbar spinal canal stenosis?

Lumbar spinal canal stenosis may happen on its own over time. This is because your bones and other tissues continue to grow around the canal. This growth makes the canal narrow over the course of your life. Other causes of lumbar spinal canal stenosis include:

  • Arthritis
  • Falls
  • Accidents
  • Wear and tear on the spine’s bones and joints

How is lumbar spinal canal stenosis diagnosed?

Sometimes your doctor can tell if you have stenosis by asking you about your symptoms. Doctors may also order special tests and X-rays of the spine to make the diagnosis.

Can lumbar spinal canal stenosis be prevented or avoided?

Lumbar spinal canal stenosis cannot really be prevented because it seems to be a part of getting older. Doctors don’t know why certain people develop it. But you may be able to reduce your risk by exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and using good posture.

Lumbar spinal canal stenosis treatment

Your treatment will depend on how bad your symptoms are. If your pain is mild and you haven’t had it long, you can try an exercise program or a physical therapy program. This can strengthen your back muscles and improve your posture.

Your doctor may also prescribe medicine to help reduce inflammation (soreness and swelling) in your spine. If you have more severe symptoms, you may need to see a spine surgeon. The surgeon may recommend an operation to take the pressure off the nerves in your lower spine. This surgery works well for many people.

Living with lumbar spinal canal stenosis

Lumbar spinal canal stenosis symptoms may come and go, especially at first. If you’ve noticed discomfort in your back and legs, talk to your doctor. These early symptoms are often easily managed through exercise.

The longer you have lumbar spinal canal stenosis, the more likely you’ll have symptoms that are more noticeable. You may be able to manage the symptoms by taking medicine or you may need only a heating pad. Work with your doctor to decide which strategy is best for you.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • My father had lumbar spinal canal stenosis. Am I at risk of having it?
  • What types of medicine can treat lumbar spinal canal stenosis?
  • What can I do to prevent or relieve pain cause by lumbar spinal canal stenosis?
  • Will lumbar spinal canal stenosis get worse?
  • What types of exercise are good for lumbar spinal canal stenosis?
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